oasis in oporto.

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Flickers in my mind of my two grey Liz Claiborne suitcases, freckled with black cheetah spots stashed in a corner, of what used to be the beloved Spanish flat I shared with two Colombian roommates, crossed my mind over and over again. I thought about how there were a few things I needed to stash inside of either suitcase and my stuffed zebra striped carry-on I swiped from my mama during Christmas break to bring back shoes, dresses and other clothing because the majority of my clothes were too big.

I thought about how nervous I was about the new roommate moving into my old room. She gave me a weird vibe. She’d been uncommunicative, and I was afraid she’s screw me (or both me and my old roommates) over in terms of rent and the deposit.

I thought about how my Spanish journey was really coming to a close in a matter of days. No more strolling on the sprawling streets in awe of the beautiful buildings and the lull of Spanish I barely understood breezing past my ear. No more being able to grab a fresh baguette for 35 cents after work to go with a heaping bowl of pasta I prepared over the tiny stove in my kitchen. No more mousing over beautiful produce I could grab, as much as my two arms could carry, and paying no more than 3 Euros for it…and it lasting for two weeks. No more 1 Euro cafe con leches as I dashed to the Metro late and needing a quick pick me up because I stayed up late Skyping and Facetiming people from back home.

No more feeling inferior because I was a Black woman and being stared at everywhere. No more having to explain myself, how I look, my name and everything about me because I was a woman of color at every juncture. No more feeling like I couldn’t breathe. No more waiting for a spare minute, second, moment to exhale and let it all out. No more fighting (and pretending) to prove Madrid, as a city, in totality, wasn’t a good fit for me.

But then as I got ceremoniously swept away in the cataclysmic sea of thoughts which tend to rattle in my brain when I’m unsettled. When I’m unsure. When I’m scared. When I’m fearful. When the unknown is creeping around the corner and I don’t know what the hell to expect.

I paused.

I paused and became present. This wasn’t the time for me to overly analytical, making myself sick with all the different iterations of angles and possibilities and crevices and possibilities.

I was here, in Oporto. I was here, sitting on a concrete wall with my back resting on a vibrant yellow house, a man working carefully and quietly just around my neck, dusting and squeaking to clean the antiquated window which looked as if time and consequence had dirtied it and prevented a reflection from gleaming through.

And to my right, the Douro River glittered underneath the overcast sky. The tops of buildings and homes and stack houses and wineries and boats and people walking and sidewalks. And I quit thinking. And my chest started to slow heave, in and out, in and out, just as a needle and thread would slowly weave through soft fabric between the hands of a seamstress creating a new garment or finessing her craft.

And precipitation fell from my tender eyes. My raw eyes. The eyes which were bloodshot red if you dared to look closely into them without trepidation. The eyes which hadn’t seen a good night of sleep in more than a month. The eyes which had seen three new countries and four new cities in only three weeks. The eyes which ached to see American soil yet hated to admit it. Hated to be that girl, that American. That person who put their home country above all the ones they had seen and witnessed and grown enamored with after being there for a short time.

I wasn’t staring at a new landscape before me. I wasn’t that crazy girl sitting on a concrete wall amazed at what was before her and trying to ignore the hoards of noisy children outfitted in fluorescent hats on a field trip who were screaming and skittering and carrying about. I was looking at my future. I was staring into the threshold of a new beginning. The rest of my life. And I was crying because I could tell, despite the fear, the hesitation, the many questions, the process that repatriation could bring that I was doing okay. I was getting there. I was headed in the right direction, and it was more, it felt more, it seemed more, it appeared more, than I could have dreamt for myself.

I thought about how in the past I was so afraid to think that my thoughts, my feelings, my words meant something. It was far more comfortable for me to hide beneath the shadows of others, to hide in their thoughts, feelings and words. To convince myself theirs were more important, more worthy, more principled.

But I do matter. I matter. I always mattered. My thoughts always mattered. My feelings always mattered. My words always mattered.

And I was always enough. Just me.

I was always.

I was always enough.

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lovely leaving.

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As the overpowering scent of chlorine invaded my nasal passages, I held my breath and tiptoed through the locker room at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. My mother had enrolled me in my first, official swimming lessons and although I’d been “swimming” for years, she thought I could use special instruction from those who actually knew what they were doing— lifeguards.

That first summer, I had to be around eight or nine, started a yearly tradition of summers filled with quickly changing in the girls locker room with the slick, sticky and ancient tiled floors, holding my breath so the chlorine and bleach smells didn’t give me a headache, as they always did when I was submerged in the water, panting, blinking furiously and trying not to complain from the burning of my eyes. 

Many, many, many times, although I was being guided by my instructor, I felt out of control, powerless to the depths of the water. Often, even when my instructor explained to myself and my classmates what we’d be doing and demonstrated, it seemed so easy, but when I attempted it was a complete flop. My most vivid memory of such instance is when I was a teenager and almost finished with all the levels of swimming courses. This class was strictly on diving in the deep, twelve feet end. I scrapped my knees on the side of the pool several times, streams of amber trailing behind me as I attempted to touch the pool floor. 

This past weekend when I celebrated my 28th birthday in Palma de Mallorca and spent the bulk of my Saturday sunbathing and frolicking in the Mediterranean Sea at Cala Major beach, I had a deja vu moment. It was one of the few times I ventured out into the water alone and thought I had my footing, but the aggressive waves slapped me back. Once this made my bikini top fly completely off and I was rendered topless. Another time, I was pushed underwater, the salt water burning my pupils and stinging my nose, forcefully shoving frigid, salty water down my throat and causing me to scrape my left knee on a rock on the bottom of the sea. 

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But I fought and laughed through it. Eventually, I was panting and limping back to the shore, collapsed on my towel in the sand and napped for fifteen minutes, completely drained and exhausted. The waves had not certainly not killed or defeated me, but it had zapped me of any energy I had before. 

Which, ironically, is what I can say about my experience living as an expat in Madrid for the past eight months. There have been countless experiences where I was slapped around, forcefully shoved and left drained and depleted as a result of circumstance. Whether it was weathering delicate (and dysfunctional) roommate situations, withstanding teaching jobs which took everything out of me although I showed up everyday determined to make it work, losing friends from back home and realizing newfound friends I’d made here weren’t the best fit, coming into my own as an adult woman and standing on my own two feet. 

And although none of these things have defeated or killed me, they’ve shed so much clarity on life as I know it and the path I want the rest of my life to continue to take, beginning with leaving Madrid, ending this Spanish journey. In nine days.

To be fair, this wasn’t a decision I made with haste or without much deliberation. I knew at the end of February when I was asked whether or not I wanted to renew my current contract with the Spanish Ministry of Education teaching in a high school. I knew, rather, that I wanted to return home, to stop forcing myself to be someone I wasn’t or enjoy a job or country I’m not happy in. 

So, leaving, for me, is two-fold. 

I’ve spoken at great lengths about the racism I’ve been affronted with in Madrid, and it’d be wholly dishonest for me to say it wasn’t a huge factor and not wanting to continue to live here. I’ve expressed at many junctures the frustration of being both a Black American and Black African here. I’ve either received empathy from those who agree with the racist notions which abound in this country or those who are so engrossed in their privilege they don’t even notice it, let alone their participation in the perpetuation of systematic racism and hatred of people of color. 

Privilege is the main thing which irks me about all the micro aggressions and othering I know to be by-product of long-standing ignorance and racism, rather those who just don’t seem to get it, even other people of color, and tell me I should take the respectability route. Those who suggest to me I act as a bridge to cultural understanding and undertake the (unwanted) burden of shattering stereotypes and incorrect, negative cultural and racial assumptions. 

I’ve arrived at such a place of pride about Blackness and my Nigerian heritage, and no, my existence has never and will never be to be an ambassador or tolerant of the ignorance of others. I don’t have to be understanding of White privilege. I don’t have to be understanding of why people think the way they do about Black Americans and Black Africans and give them a pass. I won’t accept being told I’m “overly sensitive” or that I have a “chip on my shoulder” or I should “stop reading into every little thing.” I won’t be told just because I look different and have a different name to expect to be treated differently because of the curiosity of others and to be open to it. And I won’t. I simply won’t. 

 I’m not here to assuage guilt, make myself understood or to constantly explain myself, and I’d much rather not live in a country which I feel is committed to misunderstanding me and people like me.

On the flip side of the coin, my vocation is not to teach. This I know undoubtedly after trying (and failing) to transition to what I Initially thought would be a complete career change before moving. I’ve taught adults, I’ve taught children, I’ve taught really young children and I’ve taught teenagers in my short TEFL teaching stint. The lessons and insights I’ve gained about myself are truly endless, but one thing I know overall is writing is not something I can run away from. To run away from my vocation, my calling, my purpose is akin to running away from myself.

And yes, I can admit my move to Madrid was pre-meditated as an escape, a flee, running away as fast as I could. I ran away from a lot: the familiarity (as well as predictability and boringness) of home I had grown tired of, family issues, constant disappointment with friends, a pathetic (and nonexistent) love life, impending doom about the direction (and shape) my writing career was taking, exhaustion from being broke and my talents and passions not being valued and appreciated. 

I thought the magic solution would be to move thousands of miles away to start over from scratch. Of course I had goals. I wanted to finally become fluent in Spanish and relish in the Spanish culture and…la la la la la la. Instead, what I have found is that the things I ran from never disappeared but morphed into a new form. Because you can’t run away from yourself or your problems or your issues. You have to dig deep and conquer them, conquer your demons. 

After going through endless changes with teaching: being fired, dropping classes which weren’t a good fit for me, payment not being on time or the proper amount or not receiving it at all, dealing with shitty language academies who just deemed me yet another native English speaker and treated me with no decency or respect for my time and what I had to offer. 

I found myself after finally getting a coveted position with the Spanish Ministry of Education in a high school, where I was finally getting paid a steady, livable amount and working 16 hours a week in a rather lax working environment, that I was still not happy. 

My coworkers were everything I’d wanted in colleagues: genuine, kindhearted people. They respected me as native English speaker and treated me as such. They valued my knowledge and wisdom about the many idiosyncrasies of the spoken (and written) English language. There was an open door policy where I could express concerns or issues I had with certain classes or students. 

And yet…there was a gaping hole. A longing for more. A decided feeling there had to be more for me to look forward to, to be excited about. 

After a few weeks, mornings became a new routine of dread. I’d sleep later and later to avoid getting up and slugging through teaching classes I didn’t want to teach. Several times the teachers would forget to send the groups of students to me in the library where I held my English classes, and I’d be holed up in a room for hours at a time, with only the birds outside the windows bordering the room and the echo of my own voice to talk to. At the end of each day, I felt drained and dragged myself back to my flat, ate lunch and passed out for siesta. Rinse and repeat for the four days a week I worked. I was living for the weekend…again. This was exactly the kind of pattern and mentality I had wanted to escape in my old life. 

At the end of February when I was asked to renew, I knew the answer would be no, but yet I hesitated. How could I give up this Spanish journey so quickly? I’d told so many people I’d probably be here for years. What would people think if I packed up just shy of a year? They’d think I was failure. That I was rejoining the ranks of everyone else, caught up in the working grind. That’d I’d somehow been wrong about choosing to be an expat in the first place. 

But then I just said no. A still, sure, strong, no. I said no, and felt for the first time a months, a peace I had been longing for. I knew I could put an end to all the fighting, forcing myself to fit the mold of an English teacher when I knew my heart had never been in it, that I’d pursued it for the wrong reasons. And that all this time, the only thing which had given my transformation, this journey, any meaning in the first place were my words. 

My writing. 

I needed to tap into another part of me I hadn’t known existed to write honestly, vividly, vulnerably. Moving thousands of miles away had finally given me the courage to write from the heart.

In nine days, my Spanish journey may be ending, right at the nine-month mark, but this new direction is spiraling out into something uncharted, uncertain, unknown, yet incredibly beautiful. I will be moving to Washington, D.C., a city I fell in love with last summer weeks before I moved to Madrid. I knew it’d be on my short list of places to live in at some point after spending time there and things have worked out amazingly for me to live there post-Madrid. 

I am leaving. But it’s not the messy, storming out because I’m angry, leaving. It’s the walking towards hope, wonder and newer horizons. It’s clean slates. It’s creating an optimum life fit just for me. 

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more in milan.

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Sweaty armpits, visibly dry skin on my legs and calves, a flushed face full of tears and hands shaking with rage.

I was willing myself to walk, each painstaking step, as the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, came into view on my left side. And as much as I wanted to marvel and admire such a beautiful structure, my view of the castle was obstructed with tears which fluttered freely from my eyes and my experience of taking it all in was ruined with the rage I couldn’t shake.

“Please take me to get my things,” I asked, calmly, for probably the tenth time in the past few minutes. When my Couchsurfing host ignored my plea and carelessly continued to rattle off random information about the castle’s history, my rage and panic and hysteria only festered and grew into something big. A big ball, a ball of fury, something which I knew could soon unravel and mount into something messy, frightful, dangerous and unsafe.

“Please…take…me…to…get…my…things,” I repeated this time, with my teeth clenched. When he continued to talk, ignoring my frustration, I flung myself into full conniption mode.

“I’M GOING TO CALL THE POLICE! TAKE ME TO GET MY THINGS! I DON’T WANT TO GO INTO THE CASTLE!”

At this point, onlookers were staring, wondering who this crazed American girl, screaming in English, was. Why she was disturbing the otherwise tranquil mood surrounding the castle. Why I was disturbing the peace with my antics.

But none of them knew what I had endured for the past five hours. I had arrived at Malpensa airport after a 6:25 a.m. flight. I had slept for a total of an hour and half the night before, because I had to get up and take two buses to get to the airport. I had trekked to the city center on another bus once I was in Milan, a bus ride which took 1 hour and 15 minutes, because of traffic, instead of the 50 minutes I was told. I’d waited for two hours soaking up free Wi-Fi while stuffing my face with pizza margherita, a prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula sandwich on focaccia and apple pie while I sipped my first authentic cappuccino.

I was exhausted. And for some deluded reason, I assumed once I’d arrived in Milan and was with my Couchsurfing host, they’d understand that and would let me shower and nap in peace, then take me out for aperitivo in the late evening.

But once I arrived to my couch surfing host’s house, which smelled of musk, dingy, week-old socks, filth and shisha, I knew I’d picked the wrong adventure for my first trip to Italy. Minutes after dropping my bag, I was told to walk with him to a nearby McDonald’s where we picked up four other people from Poland. They came back to the flat with us and also dropped off their things.

We were all rushed to be ready to go, impatiently so. And once we were out the door, the host began talking his shoddy English, which mostly sounded like incoherent mumbling. Most of the time while he talked, I just nodded and smiled. I had no clue what he was saying nor did I care.

We went to the famed Fashion District, then to Plazza Duomo to see the cathedral so massive and beautiful it didn’t look real. We hurriedly sped through these places and countless others, while the host corralled us through at his speed, ignoring we might want to stop and look a little longer, take photos, grab a drink or a snack. Whenever I suggested stopping to do anything off his pre-set itinerary, he vetoed it with a suggestion of his own. It felt like I was on a high school field trip with my chaperone instead of on a weekend jaunt to one of the cities I was crossing off my bucket list.

About four hours in, after walking non-stop at the pace of someone else, not being able to voice my opinions, not being able to leisurely take everything in, I gambled and started searching for somewhere to stay for the weekend on AirBnB. And then the other four people ditched me to do their own thing while leaving me with my lackluster host, and I ended up screaming at him in public because I was delirious, exhausted, hysterical and annoyed with both myself and him for testing and pushing my own limits.

And limits, boundaries, expecting more, expecting less, all these concepts are things I suppose I’ve been subconsciously learning about all my life, although within the past year as I’ve started to come into my own and disassociate from my identity which was constructed for me (versus me constructing it myself), it’s become especially prominent and pressing.

I knew before even confirming my first (and last) Couchsurfing experience it wasn’t really something I wanted to do, but after desperately searching for someone to stay within my budget and finding everywhere feasible booked, I succeeded to my desperation and chose the Free.99 route. It cost me my comfort, the freedom of exploring a new city on my own, doing things at my own pace, steering away from a set plan and instead roaming and being open to what pops up, what comes up, what might seem appealing and rolling with it.

Just as damaging as pushing the limits, your boundaries, the level of comfort you dare not press past, can be, I believe there is delicate balance between what you may think are really your boundaries and personal comfort (and guarding these while listening to your intuition) and what is instead masquerading as fear, fear of the unknown.

I’ve found, repeatedly whenever I thought clinging to my familiarities was the safer or the more “rational” choice, I’ve been astounded by the Universe’s response when I acted in courage whilst trembling in fear. In these cases, choosing the safe option was just an illusion. I was just scared. Scared to fail. Scared to have to deal with the repercussions, the fallback, what people would say when and if I did fail. How I would feel about myself having attempted and not succeeded.

Before I moved abroad, I battled many, many, many doubts and even after I moved, I’ve steadily battled whether or not packing up and relocating my life was a good decision. Each time I got deep in that rabbit hole, the Universe showed me a reminder. Or something amazing happens to alter my perspective, something incredibly beautiful, something beyond what I could have ever imagined. And in those moments, I wonder why I have been rewarded with such a beautiful life.

I had a moment like this as I looked down from my hotel room in Milan late at night, after the wretched couchsurfing experience earlier that day. The streets were dark and the only light bouncing down on the streets below were from antiquated lamps lining every block. There was a soft whisper of a car or two whizzing by, but for the most part it was really quiet. And still. I had to remind myself I was in Italy. How years ago being there, in that moment, was only a mere thought, and how miraculously it had become reality, my reality.

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The Duomo, Milan’s renowned cathedral.

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The Galleria, located in close proximity to the Duomo, adjacent to Plazza Duomo.

Only it wasn’t a miracle. And it should’ve never been something deemed impossible or unreachable. Each of us, it is my belief, are destined to walk a certain path in our lives, before who we are and who we become is even a thought. We might grow up in an environment where we’re not encouraged to dream, to hope, to reach for something larger than ourselves. We internalize this thought process and it follows us into adulthood.

But sometimes, quite often, the Universe has a way of catching up to us, of redirecting us back on track for our life journey. That’s what has happened for me anyway, since I began this expat journey. When I first received my passport five years ago, the flame was ignited for me to be a citizen of the world, but somewhere within me, I know that flame was just waiting for the optimum moment to be set ablaze. I was never meant to stay put in one place forever. I was meant to see the world, moments at a time, and share my insights, my lessons, my struggles, my suffering, my enlightenment as I did, while growing and helping others to grow, too.

This life I am living was meant for me. And your life that you are living, beyond the throes of the 9-to-5 hustle, beyond just living to pay your bills, beyond doing everything right to make everyone but you happy, is yours. It is yours and you only get one. So live it. Without restraint. Without regrets. Without looking back.

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feelings and friends.

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She was my best friend. I loved her to the moon and back. I supposed I was drawn to her because she was so different, just like I was. I was the geeky, socially awkward girl who was picked on because I enthusiastically answered all the questions from my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Chelf, and she was the new student all the way from Germany, with the equally strange name and a mass of red, curly, bouncy hair. She wore glasses, too. 

We bonded over story time, giggling in the stray corner in the library, laughing at books far above the reading level we were supposed to be in in the fifth grade. We had our own secret system of communicating, a shorthand we created during the first time we ate lunch together after we discarded the cardboard pizza, rotten chocolate milk and oranges near being spoiled. 

She trusted me, unfailingly so.

One day, after watching one of my favorite childhood movies “Harriet The Spy” I decided to make my own nifty spy book. I wrote down the names of every classmate on a separate page and painstakingly wrote a sentence or two about what I really thought about them, including my best friend. I carelessly left the book on my desk while I went to the restroom and because we had an agreement, one strengthened by a daily pinky swear, strictly forbidding the keeping of secrets from one another, she looked at the journal out of curiosity. 

When I returned from the restroom, she was acting strange, cold even. Recess was next and we all ran like a pack of wolves out of the back door of the classroom onto the playground. During that fifteen minutes, I heard whispers of my name. Before we went back inside, my teacher pulled me aside and questioned me about the journal. Turns out, my friend saw what I had written about her, came to my teacher in tears and then told the rest of the class for revenge. My journal was confiscated and right then I learned a lesson about the cost of honesty within interpersonal relationships. 

As I’m now older, I see this honesty of a different flavor. The honesty of not being afraid to tell people when who they are and the friendship they can offer you doesn’t quite work for you anymore, even when before it did, or rather you couldn’t be true to yourself and admit it just was never a complimentary fit. 

Moving thousand of miles away to live out a long-held dream of mine easily demystified the clarity I held about key friendships in my life. I watched people I loved and adored, cackled with over endless glasses of wine, shared my messy truths I dared not tell a soul vanish into streams of silence. Most of the time I spent adjusting to life in Madrid I wondered what type of horrible person, what type of horrible friend, I must have been to feel completely abandoned by almost every friend I had known previously. It was damn near identical to the heartbreak over the loss of a lover, only more painful, more through and through, like an ice pick taken and stabbed to the heart. 

And I hate how even now, months later, I still carry these wounds with me. They are nursed in the hidden pockets of my oversized handbags or the clever slits in the fabric of my favorite skirts. They’re a reminder when I open the Facebook or Gmail apps and know I can no longer count on new messages or silly banter from them. I’ve fallen away from my past and these former friends but it seems their memories, the hurt, the betrayal continues to follow me. 

I used to proudly declare to whomever would listen how difficult it was for me to make new friends, until I realized to those people whom I’m trying to forge new bonds and connections with it’s probably off-putting. 

But it is hard for me to make new friends. It’s hard for me to trust new faces, new spirits. To discern whether or not someone who I perceive initially as being good-natured and someone I mesh with it just showing me their representative. That they won’t be someone who I decide I don’t need to be around any longer. 

And because I’m particularly sensitive, it becomes harder and harder to put myself out there, especially since in general, I’ve found people can be shady, fair-weather, undependable and plain-out clueless on what it takes to be a friend and maintain a friendship.

Finding and making friends is complicated on another level when you relocate to another country, but the expat experience is so eerily precious with friendship. Expats all speak the same language. We know what it feels like to feel isolated and out of place in our former “home.” We get the difficulties which can arise when adjusting to a new place and how being an expat, overall, is akin to becoming quite familiarly acquainted with suffering. Conversing with an expat can become like speaking to a soulmate. You understand each other in ways most others won’t. 

These friendships, these expat connections, can be incredibly fleeting and not tinkered with longevity. You could meet someone who you are sure is a sister-friend but weeks after meeting them, they move. And then you never hear from them again.

From this happening to me at least twice in the past eight months, I’ve learned connections are not necessarily about permanence; they’re about depth. Friendship is not always an entity which you can box into a certain category to be held indefinitely. Sometimes a friend is needed for a week. Or a month. Or a year. The trouble arises when we expect lifetime connections with everyone. This is when (and how) we set ourselves up to be disappointed. We hurt ourselves. 

Seasons can change just as swiftly as the breeze rushing past us on a leisurely stroll. And when these seasons shift, sometimes they take people with them. You’ll wonder why a person’s energy has changed. Why they’re no longer quick to correspond with you. Why they seem lackadaisical with you when you do touch base. It’s nothing personal. There’s nothing you cold have done to change the outcome. Their role (and purpose) in your life has been completed. Let them go. Release your attachment. 

The release part is something I work towards everyday. It’s not easy or simple or even a process which occurs quickly. I’m trying to find the fine balance between letting go of a friendship which really meant something to me and treasuring the beauty and value before it corroded. 

Every now and then I search for her name on Facebook, my former elementary school best friend. Nothing ever comes up. Mutual friends tell me she’s had children now. I wonder what’s she doing. What life means to her. And if she remembers how many, many, many years ago, we had a special friendship. One which showed me pretty early on the beauty of truly being understood and accepted.

The outside of the Renfe station in Aranjuez, Spain, from a recent day-trip with a new friend.

The outside of the Renfe station in Aranjuez, Spain, from a recent day-trip with a new friend.

liberation in london.

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Three weeks ago, I hurriedly walked through Heathrow Airport, trying to both push my suitcase and connect my janky iPhone, with the shattered screen, to the complimentary Wi-Fi. My cousins were supposed to be picking me up from the airport, but I didn’t know where they were or where I was going to meet them. After I found a seat in the waiting area and sent my aunt a quick “Where are they?” message on Facebook. I exhaled. I was in the renowned Heathrow airport, the site of one of my most favorite T-Mobile flash mobs and I was gravely unimpressed. it seemed so…regular. But nonetheless, I was happy to be back in London. One, because I fell in love with the city during my first visit in March, and second, because I loved spending time with my Dad’s side of the family and connecting with my Nigerian roots. 

I spent a lovely six days eating Nigerian food (chicken stew and jollof rice) curled up on my family’s couch in the living room, wearing pajamas until late in the afternoon. I took a leisurely afternoon stroll with my cousin through Camden Town and peered at the angry travelers at St Pancras International who were hours delayed en route to Paris and elsewhere in Europe thanks to EuroStar.

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The next day, I went shopping with my Aunt at Westfield Stratford City Shopping Center and spent far too much money at H&M, River Island, Primark and TopShop. On Saturday evening, my not-so-little-anymore younger cousin gathered a group of his friends and took me out for gin and tonics and late-night lamb kebabs, dripping with a fiery chili sauce and cooling yogurt sauce,with a side of crispy, piping hot chips. We talked (mostly laughed) about the differences in American and British English while walking back to my family’s flat, the air so frigid our breath made a large, puffy cloud in front of us. 

Those several consecutive afternoons as I sat propped up in the living room on the couch, watching American television I haven’t been able to watch for the past six months, it dawned on me what a good mental, emotional and spiritual space I was finally in. The fatigue of fighting to adjust to European life had finally settled and dropped to a minimal, almost unnoticeable level. And although the micro aggressions and racial tensions still exist everyday around me, I’ve accepted them as is and rest in being proud of being a Black American and African. No ignorance from anyone can shake the pride for my heritage now. 

The past eight months have almost become a blur. Sometimes I can only recall all the memories and challenges and frustrations and nights keeled over sobbing in spurts. I can tangibly separate the different chapters into B.S. (Before Spain) and now, A.S. (After Spain). 

I have truly changed. But not in a dramatic, sweeping ways. I’ve turned inward. I’ve deprogrammed all the clutter and projection and pronouncements from other people telling me the type of person I was, the woman I was. The noise which used to drown out my own voice, my own opinions, the sense of trust I’ve come to (now) rely on has dissipated. I’ve forcefully grabbed my identity by its reins and have taken the agency of defining myself, of determining who I am. I’ve sat in silence and pondered this on many occasions. Reflected on how I dealt with troubling scenarios. How I dared to not to be the reactive, explosive, irrational, impulsive person I thought was me and how instead I respond, with composure, to whatever is thrown my way. 

Is this what liberation feels like? 

And yet, in some ways I still struggle with newfangled bouts of insecurity. They range in intensity and duration, but each time they cause me to question at what cost I’ve obtained this liberation, this overwhelming sensation which cascades and  resounds deeply in the depths of my soul and spirit. I scroll through my Facebook, Instagram and Twitter timelines, and I see how the many people I left behind, folks I either no longer talk to or have very little common with since I’ve moved, and I feel isolated and left out. Everyone is continuing along the trajectory society has plainly laid out for them: college, maybe a Masters or professional degree, first big job, engagement, big wedding (with pictures galore), a baby (or two)…

I often feel like I am not doing enough. That this leap to be an expat, a long held dream of mine, to embrace a life of travel and amazing experiences isn’t good enough. People will comment incessantly on a new baby or an engagement or a graduation, but when it comes to living life off the beaten path? Silence. Or as I’ve experienced, people who are so excited and happy for you initially, but later become so wrapped up in their own lives, that they move on and stop wondering what your life looks like on the other side of the world. And this truly feels terrible when it comes from people you really care about. When you go from communication to sporadic communication to no response from emails, GChat messages or calls. When friends and loved ones turn into strangers who you don’t even bother reaching out to anymore because things have really changed. You’ve changed. And maybe they haven’t. 

It’s really unfair that society, for the most part, can’t celebrate life choices people make that lie outside the traditional, commonly accepted heteronormative ones, especially for women. The straight path, as I’ve described before, isn’t for me. I wanted to create a life I could marvel at, every day. One that fit my dreams, desires, personality and (desired) pace of life overall. But making this choice seems to have cost me everything. 

There are many sacrifices that have to be taken to embrace expat life or one of constant travel. It rubs me the wrong way when people say things like “I’m so jealous!” or “You’re so lucky!” I’m not lucky;  You shouldn’t be jealous. I’m not the chosen one. I made a choice (that you can make too!). I took a huge leap and many smaller leaps after then—and I still continue to make tiny hops everyday.  Many people have tons of savings stocked away for a rainy day. I budget fiercely on necessities and essentials and spend my extra money on trips. Many people own property and a car. All I own fits into two suitcases. 

Liberation, at least mine, as soothing and peaceful and as desirable as it, has come with an incredible cost. I’ve exchanged the normalcy of life as others have deemed it for peace of mind.

But I’m happy. 

I know I’ve made the right choices thus far, and my heart is whole and well each day I continue to make steps in this direction. Because, after all, what’s the point of living if you aren’t wholly listening to the rhythm and pitter-patter and gentle whispers of your heart guiding you exactly where you need to be? 

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obstinate othering.

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Somewhere in-between all the hey day, thousands of adjustments, millions of failures and just plain trying to figure shit out, five months have passed since the green light flashed and I said a resounding, “Yes!” to living my life as an expatriate.

I’ve changed addresses twice. I’ve made fast friends with people only to realize the people I befriended I couldn’t stand. I’ve quit teaching jobs (and of course, been fired, heh)  and re-embraced the philosophy central behind the reason I left my life behind in the States–my comfy lifestyle with my expensive car and driving to a job everyday that I hated–slowing down enough to be present to enjoy the gifts life offers. I’ve started writing more, or should I say consistently, versus going days, weeks and months without trying to make sense of life as it unfolds with my words. I’ve cooked the most amazing meals of my life in a kitchen the size of a pantry and an oven the size of a shoebox. I’ve slept in twin sized beds so little and compact my feet dangle off the edge if I don’t sleep in the fetal position.

While so many things have changed, while various components of life as I know it, my Madrid experience as I refer to it when I’m all by my lonesome, other things have remained static, unchanging and rather, things I’ve not wanted to consciously deal with or think about so most of the time I (try to) ignore them.

The ill-fated r word: race. And it’s dear friend, the ill-fated cousin: racism.

When I was home for Christmas, many people asked me if there were many “Black people” in Madrid. So many people looked at me, doe-eyed, wanting to know if there was an inkling of people of color, people who looked like me or them. Most of them were shocked or confused (or both) when I declared there weren’t and that because I was one of the few and I was quite tall, it made me a spectacle. I found (and still find everyday) stares lingering far past the typical “Spanish stare.”

But the way Spaniards deal with race in particular is quite…interesting. They won’t come out and say really prejudiced and racist things that would shed light on the way they view other races and other people in general that are different from them.  Instead they box those “other people” into these neat little categories. I suppose categories which make it more comfortable to wrap their minds diversity and enable them to distance themselves of the concept of being open to the concept of diversity altogether.

Here’s a relevant example I’ve received from Spaniards as well as fellow expats quite a bit:

There’s this neighborhood in Madrid, which, although I don’t go there often is easily my favorite. It’s called Lavapiés, also known as a vibrant, thriving melting pot of culture.

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Buildings lining the street in Lavapiés on a sunny, sultry Sunday evening.

The first few times I ventured to the barrio I was in search of delicious food because the bland and greasy Spanish dishes weren’t quite hitting the spot. I’ve had delicious Indian food on a table lining the streets while languages whooshed past my ears that certainly wasn’t Spanish and enjoyed the tastiest tacos with equally invigorating margaritas in the same barrio as well.

Africans, Jamaicans, Indians and numerous other ethnicities call this barrio home. I love being in that neighborhood because there I feel less like an alien. I can look onto to the faces of people who look like me, who are clearly different, whose heritage is closely aligned like mine and for once, I don’t feel shame. I don’t feel inclined to try to ignore the racist rubs and inclinations I’m faced with almost daily.

When the subject of the neighborhood has arisen naturally in conversation with either my students or others of Spanish descent or fellow expats or even other immigrants here who aren’t those of color, they say the same sort of things. They frown up at the neighborhood. They immediately say the neighborhood is composed of immigrants, as if it is bad thing. They’ll say the area is notorious for crime and to “watch your purse and belongings” if you venture there. They’ll also mention the alleged bed bug infestation and how the buildings look dirty and the area is dirty in general. There’s never a positive nod to the abundance of rich culture there.

And it reminds me of the same notions from back in the States. As an Atlanta native, these are the exact same sentiments I’d hear about people not going to “that part” of Decatur or Stone Mountain or Lithonia on the Eastside or anywhere on the Southside past a certain time because of course “thugs” abound. Because of course, any area where there are a lot of people of color there’s sure to be crime and it’s not safe and it’s not anywhere anyone would want to be. Right?

I used to live in Tetuán, a surburb roughly 20 minutes north of Madrid. I only lived there for three months and moving from there had much more to do with me not liking being compadres with the three cats and dogs (along with three human roommates). I got sick of cat hair being on all my belongings and also being so far from the city center. The commute drained and depleted me. But again, if you ask many people their opinion of this barrio, all negative. They’ll mention, immediately, the number of immigrants. And how the area isn’t pretty to look at. And how there’s nothing to do there. Same things said about Lavapiés.

But these notions, these reactions, these thoughts I’m continually bombarded with has me thinking: is this how I am viewed when I’m just innocently walking around, commuting on the Metro, eating in a restaurant? Are people in Madrid automatically thinking negative things when they see my face or are they already internalizing the type of person they think I am because of the media and other negative interpretations of what it means to be a person of color, to be Black, to be African?

As I’ve stated before, I’m not interested in changing any aspect of me just to fit in or be desirable and to not get the rampant amount of lingering stares. But at one point or another, one has to wonder whether or not it’s truly worth calling yourself a temporary resident of a country, despite its beauty and slower pace of life and many, many, many enjoyable things, that in one way or another is committed to misunderstanding you, to othering you and plain out making you feel like you don’t belong.

home and hearts.

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My hair fluttered in the wind behind as I walked, the leather jacket I’d purchased at Zara on a street minutes away from my flat in Madrid briskly brushing past my hips and tailing my body. I rolled my suitcase with my right hand and clung to my black carry-on bag as I exited the Marta train station, where my mother waited for me in the family car–the car I  had driven many a time when my car was in the shop or decided it was having an off day. 

I had arrived home, in Atlanta, for an almost three-week stay. Coming home had been a loaded gun and for the most part, I was exuberant and giddy with enthusiasm. The last week before I left Madrid had been one filled with bouts of sorrow and the resolve I would most likely not return to Spain after the Christmas break. In fact, somewhere deep in my mind, I fathomed I would only return, as my roundtrip ticket I had purchased months before was non-refundable, to gather my belongings and shed my woeful attempt to living abroad and starting a life full of travel and adventure. 

Maybe I had not been fit to make it here, I thought over and over again before boarding that 10-hour flight to Atlanta. I looked around at the sights, the long Metro ride to the airport, the nearly two-mile trek to the gate to board my flight and imagined how life would be if I just gave up, if I just said goodbye to a long held dream of mine. 

And so I pondered these possibilities, how giving up must feel and knew it had to be like this, as I rode home and half-way listened to my mother gab about the goings on in the neighborhood, my mind elsewhere. Giving up sometimes doesn’t follow a lack of attempt, but instead a good fight which withers into situations, people and leaps that just don’t work. What I didn’t have the answer to is just how life would feel back in my hometown after having such an intense three-months away from the comfort and sameness which had characterized my entire existence. 

But twenty minutes later, after almost running into the gray stucco home I had grown up in, the house where life as an adult strangely mirrored my growth and development as a child, I stared into the room previously known as mine, my mouth agape. My mother thought my speechlessness equated to my gratitude for what was a complete remodel of my room, but it was the finality of how much had changed, how life had continued to zoom ahead without my presence there felt real, tangible. And it was horrifying. And isolating. And strange. 

Over the next few days, I visited with friends, people who I felt like I used to know but instead only felt an eerie amount of distance from. They talked to me about their jobs, complained about gas prices and the latest drama in Atlanta. They laughed and smiled at me, asked me questions here and there about Madrid, but only, it felt different. I felt like I was just a visiting friend, someone who didn’t belong and an outsider to even the people I knew the most. 

These sights were familiar. The smells were familiar. The people, the faces were familiar. 

But the only difference was I wasn’t the same. Only three months had passed since I was no longer in the United States living my day-to-day, drab, monotonous, predictable and lackluster life. In that short time, I had shifted. I had become more conscious. I had become more in-tune with my spirit, my soul, my emotions, my conscience, what made my inner-being smile. 

My life was no longer about grasping to make ends meet between rising gas prices, the bills that never seemed to end and overpriced nights out in the city, but instead about rushing to the Metro to catch the train before I had to wait another three or four minutes. Or rushing to the bank to deposit my money before they stopped accepting deposits at 2:30. Or shopping for one at the grocery store and separating meals into tupperware containers so I didn’t have to cook during the jam-packed weeks. Or staying up (and out) too late on the weekends and sleeping until three or four in the afternoon, the taste of alcohol lingering on my tongue when I awoke and memories of a fun night out reverberating in my brain along with the slight throb of my head from a hangover. Or lesson planning for all my classes, laughing at my students when they laughed at my shoddy Spanish. 

Life had become about me, about marching to the beat of my drum and doing what felt best, in every moment. Authenticity. My life had authenticity, something I no longer felt the need to prove to anyone, even myself. And reflection. Slowing down. Basking in the moments of silence. Pausing to have a cafe con leche in that extra five minutes versus being glued to status updates on Facebook, new videos or pictures on Instagram or my Twitter timeline during my lunch break. 

In that time, I remembered why I began writing in the first place, why it had become so important to me and I knew leaving behind Journalism was never the answer. The answer was pursuing writing that always meant something. To be true to myself and to remember my words had a higher purpose than scoring me validation, admiration. 

So, I knew, almost instantly that leaving Madrid behind wasn’t the answer. There was still so much to uncover about myself left. Because home isn’t necessarily a geographic location. Home can be within the warm embrace of a person. Home can be a temporary setting away from the norm. Home can be anywhere your mind feels free, where you feel you can best breathe, whether it be a spare closet you escape to in stolen moments or the high rise condo overlooking a metropolis.  

So here I remain, here I will be, here I will live until I know, without a doubt, what makes sense for me, for Nneka and no one else. 

I am home. 

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Sunrise in Conde Casal from my morning commute to work.